Memory of the World: 30 Years Protecting Documentary Heritage of Humanity

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Memory of the World Programme. Over this period, it has found the unique place within UNESCO, has implemented a wide range of projects, and has passed the strength test of global politics.

UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme back in 1992. By that time, the global community was fully aware that it was necessary to care about vulnerable, especially in cases of emergency, material items preserving the heritage of humanity — written and audiovisual documents. In accordance with the statutory principles of the Programme, it aimed to preserve the world’s documentary monuments, to ensure universal access to them, and to raise awareness among the public of the significance of such work.
Unlike most intergovernmental programs of UNESCO, the Memory of the World is administered not by Member States directly, but by a number of expert groups headed by the International Advisory Committee — the governing body formed by UNESCO Director-General from major international experts in archival and library science acting in a personal capacity. Despite many shortcomings of this approach, the existing model has proven its effectiveness and ability to involve interested countries and organizations in the activities of the Memory of the World.
The Programme has established successful partnerships with such organizations as the International Council on Archives and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. To support the activities of the Programme, 94 National Memory of the World Committees have been established, as well as three Regional Committees in African, Asia Pacific and the Latin America and Caribbean regions. In 2004, UNESCO created the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize at the suggestion of the Republic of Korea. In 2018, Japan initiated a regular Global Policy Forum within the Programme.
One of the greatest achievements was the adoption of the Recommendation concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage including in Digital Form, which took place in 2015. This is the main standard-setting instrument of the Memory of the World aimed at the implementation and international promotion of its mandate. The Programme strives to make a feasible contribution to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN, namely “ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms”.
Launched in 1995, the International Register of Documentary Heritage, which includes the most important properties from all over the world, has become a showpiece of the Programme. At present, this list includes 432 items represented by 84 states, territorial entities, and international organizations.
Due to the high international prestige, over the years, the Memory of the World Register has experienced political pressure. In 2015, several states put forward a series of controversial, politically motivated nominations aimed at settling scores with their historical opponents. For this reason, in 2017, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay announced a moratorium on the expansion of the International Register until the complete revision of the Programme, which lasted until 2021.
As one of the world’s largest archival and library states, the Russian Federation is a responsible and interested participant in international cooperation within the Memory of the World Programme. In 1995, a National committee was established in Russia, which brought together leading experts in the field of preservation of documentary and historical heritage. Since 2010, Andrey Artizov, the Member of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO and the Head of the Federal Archival Agency, has been running this advisory body.
The Russian Committee of the Memory of the World Programme assists the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO in preparing regular national reports on the implementation of the 2015 Recommendation. In addition to this, the Committee interacts and exchanges experience with experts and archivists from different countries.
The expert support of the National committee enabled to include 14 Russian nominations in the International Register of the Memory of the World. These are the monuments of the early Middle Ages and documents of recent history. Russia is among the top ten countries regarding the number of the items in this list. Currently, a new nomination has been submitted for consideration of the International Advisory Committee — the Handwriting and Notes of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who’s 200th anniversary was celebrated by UNESCO in 2021. In addition, the Russian Federation is considering the proposal concerning the introduction of a joint nomination with one of the friendly CIS countries during the next cycle of the Programme.
The Russian Federation is optimistic about the future of the Memory of the World and will continue to provide the necessary support for its full restoration and sustainable functioning as a professional and politically unbiased Programme, which is aimed at preserving the unique documentary heritage of our planet.

Konstantin Emelin